Erin Kelly on the Influence of Masquerade on The Skeleton Key
A captivating thriller based around a puzzle found in a re-issued picture book, Erin Kelly's The Skeleton Key turns a cosy treasure hunt into a deadly game of intrigue and survival. In this exclusive piece, the author talks about the inspiration behind this delicious mystery and the specific part the iconic 1979 children's book Masquerade by Kit Williams played in its inception.
The books you read in childhood never leave you. My earliest reading memory is a page in a picture book. A photorealistic but fantastical painting showed a brown hare leaping over dandelions and mice, a tangle of thorns and petals. A riddle framed the image: In haste to chase, Jack hare jumps dog rose. Blushing petals tumble upon air. Behind the brambles a little girl sat with her knees drawn up to her chin, looking straight at me. She knew something I didn’t. She was inside the book! I longed to be there too. I read and re-read that book until the paper turned to velvet under my fingertips.
That book was Masquerade (sadly currently out of print), the 1979 treasure-hunt storybook by Gloucestershire artist Kit Williams. It told the journey of Jack Hare, entrusted to deliver a gift from the moon (painted as a woman) to the sun (depicted as a man). On reaching the Sun, Jack finds that he has lost the treasure, and the reader is challenged to discover its earthy equivalent: a jewel-studded golden hare, hand-made by Williams and buried somewhere in the English countryside. A woman flies high above a playing field painted with mysterious numbers. A marionette collapses on a beach. A boy presses his nose to a sweet shop window. Was the secret hidden in the words, the pictures or the numbers? Williams wasn’t telling.
The book was an instant phenomenon. The parks, forests and fields of England were crawling with ‘Masqueraders’ armed with Ordnance Survey maps, shovels, compasses and cameras. Williams received two postbags of ‘solves’ a day and the odd stalker; frenzied hunters were arrested for trespass on private property and vandalism of national parks. It inspired a short-lived musical and countless imitations. One man’s obsession with solving the hunt was even cited in a divorce case. The story of the quest for the golden hare developed its own narrative, compelling as any novel. In 1992, the treasure was claimed by a fraudster who’d made an educated guess based on a passing remark of the artist’s old girlfriend. The bad-faith find broke many a Masquerader’s heart. Even now, some hardcore hunters believe the true prize remains hidden, and their search continues.
Several years ago, by then an author myself, I was reading my tattered childhood copy of Masquerade with my own daughter on my lap when I felt a familiar stirring: there’s a book here. Fraud and lies, betrayal, obsession, delusion, death - as a writer of psychological gothic fiction, these are my stock in trade, and the clues and misdirections of a treasure hunt are catnip to a crime writer.
I’ve learned that the longer I leave an idea to marinate, the better the process of writing will be, and The Skeleton Key didn’t take shape until lockdown hit. Like everyone else I spent far too much time of 2020 online, gripped not only by the heartbreaking headlines but also the explosion of conspiracy theories and the human talent for denial. I developed a grim fascination with the way two intelligent people, when both presented with the same information, could draw such different conclusions. Wasn’t that exactly what the Masqueraders had done? If the book was published today, what would that online community be like? What if one of Kit Williams’ avid fans had crossed the line into violence? There was my story.
My fictional artist is called Frank Churcher, and his book is called The Golden Bones: the treasure is a jewelled skeleton, scattered and buried at seven locations. The lore is the story of Elinore, whose cuckolded elderly husband murders her and scatters her bones across the land: her lover’s task is to reassemble her skeleton and bring her back to life. (On the rare occasions I took my nose out of a book in childhood it was generally to listen to folk songs with grisly narratives like this one.)
So immersive is the experience that Churcher creates that some treasure hunters – I called my die-hard fans Bonehunters - can’t tell reality from fantasy. Lives are lost in pursuit of the treasure, but it’s all good publicity and sales of the book make Frank Churcher a very rich man. Only when his teenage daughter Nell’s life is threatened does he grudgingly call off the search, even though one golden bone – Elinore’s pelvis – remains hidden. Many years later, on the fiftieth anniversary of The Golden Bones’ publication, he decides enough time has passed that a special collector’s edition can be reissued. To publicise it, he reveals the resting place of the last golden bone. Nell – who lives a nomadic life on a boat, distanced from her family – reluctantly attends the grand unveiling. But human remains are uncovered instead, and she quickly realises that she is still in danger.
I loved every minute of writing The Skeleton Key. I immersed myself in art, in folklore, in real-life treasure hunts, and, of course, in Masquerade. When my book was finished I felt as though I had finally achieved my childhood ambition of climbing inside Masquerade’s pages. I nervously sent a copy of The Skeleton Key to Kit Williams. The card I received in return, saying how thrilled he was that Masquerade is still inspiring creators so many years after publication, is my idea of treasure.
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